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Hillsborough elections supervisor's mass mailing criticized

TAMPA — Two days before Monday's deadline to register to vote, Karen Cohen and her husband received registration applications in the mail from Buddy Johnson, Hillsborough County's elections chief.

Cohen, who has been registered to vote for the past 18 years, found the mailer confusing and worried that taking the wrong action could somehow discount her vote.

"It just sent chills up and down our spines," said the 60-year-old Valrico resident, who decided not to send in the form.

"I looked at our voter registration cards," Cohen said. "They're fine."

Like the Cohens, all of the county's 666,800 registered voters got the forms last week. They accompanied voter education materials featuring Johnson's picture and touting early voting and optical scan machines, as well as a bookmark featuring his initiative on student voter registration. The mailing cost about $100,000, said Kathy Harris, Johnson's legal counsel.

The forms went out in envelopes imprinted with the message "Important Election Information Enclosed!" in red.

"We included the voter registration application as a courtesy to registered voters so that they could update their voter information if needed, or they could give the application to friends or family members who may not be registered," Harris said. "Registered voters are the best ambassadors for encouraging friends and family members to register."

But some voters said they thought the mailings appeared more like campaign materials. And other Tampa Bay elections supervisors say they don't see the need to send forms to those already registered.

Nan Sawyer, 73, who lives in Sun City Center, said the mailing looked to her like a campaign piece for Johnson, a Republican who is running for re-election against Democrat Phyllis Busansky.

"It annoys me to see public money spent on self-aggrandizement," said Sawyer, a registered voter since 2003. "I don't think I'll be voting for him."

Finance reports show Johnson has raised about $50,000 for his re-election campaign and has spent about $23,400.

But the Supervisor of Elections Office has about $325,000 in taxpayer money to spend on voter education efforts. Johnson has used much of that money for cable television ads and publications that prominently feature his name and photograph along with details about the county's new voting machines.

That has prompted accusations by Busansky that Johnson is using taxpayer money to fund his campaign.

"Everything about these things revolve around Buddy Johnson desperately, frantically trying to win this election by really misguiding the public at our expense," Busansky said.

Johnson said he sent the brochures to notify voters about the new optical scan voting system, an important change for Hillsborough residents.

"The mandate from the secretary of state is to educate our voters about the new system," Johnson said. "I will not hold my opponent's total lack of experience in election administration against her."

Harris said the office has received calls from some residents thanking them for sending the forms.

Nancy Whitlock, a spokeswoman for the Pinellas County supervisor of elections, said her office does not do a mass mailing of voter registration applications.

Neither does Pasco Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley.

"I don't know why you would do that," said Melba Hamilton, Corley's chief deputy.

Thomas Knueppel, who lives in Ybor City, said he would have been confused by the application if he hadn't also received his absentee ballot the same day.

"I would have said, 'Hey, do they think I'm not registered?' Otherwise, why would they have sent me a registration application?" he asked. "In addition there were some very fancy brochures. That to me really looks like a waste of taxpayer money."

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Hillsborough elections supervisor's mass mailing criticized 10/06/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 9, 2008 5:07pm]
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